Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Nothing That Means Nothing, or Big Tuna Fish is Coming Soon

On May 30, The Criterion Collection will be releasing Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project No. 2, four years after the first volume of this series of box sets came out. I think many followers of Criterion wondered if low sales (which, speaking for myself, were assumed to be low, but as I think I've made clear by now, I don't know shit) had put a halt to this noble project. The project, simply put, is the restoration of important but largely obscure films, from countries not necessarily thought of when contemplating world cinema. The first set included films from Bangladesh, Mexico, and Senegal, and this new one features titles from Turkey, Thailand, and the Philippines, among other countries. There's very little chance I, or you, would be able to see most of these films at all, let alone on Blu-ray (both sets are dual format, by the way), were it not for Martin Scorsese, Criterion, and The Film Foundation. As for the films themselves...

Insiang (d. Lino Brocka) - Brocka, who died in 1992, is perhaps the best-known Filipino director, and this film, as Philip Lopate explains in his Criterion booklet essay, put him on the international stage when it premiered at Cannes in 1978. It's a sort of realist melodrama about Insiang (Hilda Koronel), an attractive young woman who lives in the slums of Manila with Tonya (Mona Lisa), her snapping, judgmental mother (as well as a sprawl of other relatives, at least at first, before Tonya, boots them out for not meeting her moral standards). Insiang is dating Bebot (Rez Cortez), a young dullard who is constantly trying to pressure Insiang into sex, and eventually Tonya allows her lover Dado (Ruel Vernal), a cocky, domineering slaughterhouse worker, to move in with her and Insiang.

And so. Things go pear-shaped for everyone. The filmmaker who springs to mind as a kind of easy comparison, but also as an easy way into Insiang, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Like Fassbinder, Brocka, at least in Insiang, seems to have been inspired in part by classic melodramas and "woman's films." Yet in creating his own version, again like Fassbinder, Brocka surrounds his operatic events with real locations, bland colors, as much naturalism as he can without defeating his own purpose (and really quickly, I realize the previous description does not cover all of Fassbinder's work; I'm thinking of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Merchant of Four Seasons and the like). In his essay, Lopate takes note of a curious tic that Brocka employs throughout Insiang, wherein many important scenes that include a swell of music will end, and that scene will cut to the next, chopping off the music as well. Lopate isn't sure if this is a knowing choice pertaining to the genre, or form, in which Brocka is working, or a symptom of the clumsiness of a filmmaker learning as he goes. I don't know which it is either, but I agree with Lopate that it has to be one or the other, and as I watched the film my interpretation pointed, more and more heavily, to the former. Once seems like a mistake; three or four times has to be deliberate. Especially when you consider it in relation to where Brocka's film ends up, which also recalls Fassbinder, and which reveals Insiang's full shape and intent.

Mysterious Object at Noon (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - One of only two filmmakers featured in this set who is still alive, Weerasethakul has became a major figure in world cinema following his breakout, the mesmerizing Tropical Malady, the Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and the recent Cemetery of Splendour. This one, from 2000, is his first feature film. It begins with a young woman telling the story of her hard life to the camera. Her tears are undeniably real, and so this story must be, too. After, someone off-camera (presumably Weerasethakul) asks if she has any other stories she'd like to tell, either real or made-up. She seems to be considering the question, and then the film cuts and that's the lest we see of her.

The rest of Mysterious Object at Noon is made up of real Thai citizens adding to an exquisite corpse story that is at first about a kind teacher named Dogfahr tutoring a young disabled boy while taking care of her sick father. The story, sections of which Weerasethakul dramatizes becomes progressively more strange, as storytellers add mysterious lines to Dogfahr's skin which her doctor has difficulty explaining, the teacher seems to die, a mysterious boy appears from very unlikely circumstances, and eventually, and this is a spoiler I guess, a group of young schoolkids add their ideas to the story and predictably start killing everyone off.

Mysterious Object at Noon has a curious effect on the viewer, or it did on me. Essentially, the more nonsensical the story becomes, the freer the film seems, and the freer the experience of watching it becomes. Though there are undercurrents of sadness in the film, there is something light about it by the end, a kind of wild escape from the awfulness on the ground. One of the more prominent storytellers is an old woman, getting drunk as she adds to the story. I think she's responsible for some of the grander nonsense. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

Revenge (d. Ermek Shinarbaev) - Revenge seems to be a kind of mini-theme running through this set -- it's certainly there in Insiang, and I think there's even a bit of it in Mysterious Object at Noon's exquisite corpse story, but as you might expect, this film called Revenge really takes that bull by the horns. A product of the Kazakh New Wave, as Kent Jones explains in his essay that accompanies the set, this Russian film features an almost entirely Korean cast, as a reflection of the Korean population that had been forcibly relocated into Russia by the Soviets in the early 20th Century (as explained, again, by Jones in his essay). This also reflects the experiences of the film's writer, the Russian-Korean Anatoli Kim. All of which is a very complex foundation for a very complex story that in a film that is only about 90 minutes, still spans decades, generations.

Early in the film, a young girl is brutally murdered, for literally no reason, by her teacher (Nikolai Tacheyev). Her father (Kasim Zhakibayev) vows revenge, a vow that ultimately must be handed down to Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) to satisfy, as the hunt for Yan, the killer, turns out to be a long and arduous one.

As you might expect, Shinarbaev and Kim don't approach their subject with an air of bloodthirsty glee. Which makes their decision to portray Yan as utterly remorseless, to the extent that at one point he even taunts his victim's grieving mother, and interesting one, and proof, at least, that the filmmakers have the courage of their convictions. In any case, the power of Revenge, which is considerable, doesn't derive from any literal source; it's lyrical, poetic, imagination. And mournful: as one character, a poet, says early on, following one of the film's many acts if cruelty: "My verses serve no purpose in this world."

Limite (d. Mario Peixoto) - From a historical point of view, the most miraculous film in the set is this one, a silent film made in 1931 by a man in his early 20s, the Brazilian poet and novelist Mario Peixoto, who would never again make another film. The strange history of Limite is laid out well by Fabio Andrade in his accompanying essay, but suffice it to say the film was unavailable for so long that some prominent Brazilian critics began to question its existence, and the subsequent restoration that has made it available now was still unable to salvage one sequence, which by necessity has been replaced by an explanatory title card.

All of which makes me feel ungrateful for being largely unmoved by Limite. The film is about two women and a man who are lost at sea. Their pasts are gradually revealed in flashbacks, though this isn't what you'd call a plotty kind of movie. It is, as described elsewhere, an experimental film -- abstract and strange as you'd expect, but experimental also in the sense that Peixoto is figuring out what you can do with a movie camera in 1931. He's trying out angles just to see the results, he's seeing how much movement you can get out of those bulky old sons if bit he's  (he gets a lot). And so on. Or anyway, that's how large chunks of it played to me. Still, interesting, and undeniably significant.

Law of the Border (d. Lutfi O. Akad) - Also lucky to have been rescued by Scorsese and The Film Society is this 1966 Turkish film, a kind of social thriller about a man named Hidir (Yilmaz Guney) who, with his gang, smuggles sheep and other goods across the border between Turkey and Syria. Hidir does this because it's the best way to make money for his family, but it puts him in conflict with the government, the Turkish police, and more violent smugglers.

Text prior to the film provided by Criterion informs the viewer that what they're about to see is, restoration-wise, the best they could do, which prepared me for something much worse than I got. There's a little of dirt still visible, and some small bit of footage seems to be missing from the end. This, I'll admit, may rob the climax if some of its emotional heft, if only because its absence leaves a jarring skip behind. Otherwise the dustiness of the image suits the Sandy environment. It also, in an odd way, makes Law of the Border feel like part of the tradition of independent, fatalistic American noir. Akad ends his film with a lot more bloodshed than I was expecting, but the message was clear: crime doesn't pay, even when you have no choice.

Taipei Story (d. Edward Yang) - It's a bit surprising to me that this film would be included in a box set such as the one under review, given that Criterion has proven itself eager to be in the Edward Yang business, having previously released Yi Yi and, more recently, A Brighter Summer Day, the acquiring and restoration of which was a years-long process. So you'd think that Taipei Story, Yang's second feature would demand it's own release. Who knows why this release came about the way it did, but I'm not going to complain; it's the set's best film, the centerpiece,  and I'm grateful to have it at all.

Featuring director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who co-wrote the film with Yang and Chu Tien-wen, as Lung, a former baseball player who now owns a fabric store, and Tsai Chin as Chin, Lung's girlfriend who walks away from her job at an architecture firm due to that company's changing-for-the-worse landscape, Taipei Story, like Ozu's Tokyo Story (from which the English title of Yang's film takes its inspiration; it should probably be noted that Yang's original titles translates as Green Plums and a Bamboo Horse) is about the harm that ancient traditions adhered to blindly can inflict on both those carrying them out, and those, like Chin, who are in effect the unwilling subjects of those traditions.

Though in 1985 it's more likely that someone like Chin will push back more than she would have just thirty years prior. There's a great moment between her and her father (Wu Ping-nan) and a soup spoon, which Tsai Chin plays beautifully, and so quietly, getting across with just the line of her mouth and downcast eyes how goddamn sick she is of all this shit, quite frankly. Yet while Hou Hsiao-hsien (also superb) drifts unhappily also long, no more able to reconcile his attachment to also long tradition that is doing him no favors, he unfairly takes the brunt of Chin's frustration. Tradition and aimlessness doesn't mean he's not a decent person. Not everything is his fault. Nor is it Chin's fault that her one way out is through a kind of modernity in which Yang sees only blankness.

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